Your missionary to Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, Rob Schenck, reporting:
Different religious traditions use the term “saint” differently. For some, “living saint” is an oxymoron. By this definition, anyone deemed a saint has already passed to Heaven. For others, all faithful Christians are at all times “saints.” In common American parlance a “living saint” is somebody who stands out from others because he/she has lived a God-honoring life that has benefited humanity. The top qualities of living saints reflect the two Great Commandments: They love God and they love their fellow human beings.
To my amazement, one such “living saint” is still, well, living—and I had the privilege of meeting him yesterday! He is George MacPherson Docherty, a retired Presbyterian minister. Now bedridden at 96, he carries the same dignity he did when he entertained presidents, lectured at universities and kept company with his golfing buddy Billy Graham. It was one of Dr. Docherty’s sermons that helped turn our nation back to God. In fact, it was his preaching that would lead to hundreds of millions of American citizens pledging their allegiance to the flag of “one nation under God.” It’s an amazing story.
For years I have known a little bit about how the Pledge of Allegiance was modified to include the phrase “under God.” It happened in 1954 at the height of the “Cold War” between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The conflict boiled down to one basic element: The acknowledgment of God as sovereign over humanity and nations. Americans have always been a God-fearing people, while the Soviet Union was an officially atheistic state. America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, states unequivocally that our most fundamental human rights come to us as irrevocable gifts from the Creator, not as privileges from the government. Soviet socialism sought to eradicate this notion of God-given rights and replace it with a purely secularist worldview and an all-powerful state.
In response to the advance of such radical secularism, the Knights of Columbus and other groups had launched national petition drives in the early 1950’s to insert the phrase “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. But it would be a single sermon and a president’s response to it that proved the tipping point.
On Sunday morning February 7, 1954, Dr. Docherty, the Scottish born pastor of Washington’s famed New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and the successor to pulpit luminary Peter Marshall, preached a sermon entitled “A New Birth of Freedom.” It was the church’s annual “Lincoln Day,” an observance in honor of the 16th president who regularly attended services there nearly a century before.
Knowing then President Dwight Eisenhower would be in attendance, Dr. Docherty revised an earlier sermon, this time weaving in his proposal that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address reference to “one nation under God,” be added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
“We face, today, a theological war,” he thundered from the pulpit in his impressive brogue. “It is not basically a conflict between two political philosophies, Thomas Jefferson’s democracy over against Lenin’s communistic state. Nor is it a conflict fundamentally between two economic systems, between, shall we say Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ and Karl Marx’s ‘Das Capital.’”
Then the preacher launched his proposition, “To omit the words ‘Under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive character of the ‘American Way of Life.’”
(Ironically, it wasn't until 1960 that Docherty himself became an American citizen.)
Eisenhower liked the sermon and bought Docherty’s argument, as did two members of Congress present that morning. (The above photo was taken immediately following the service.) The very next day the legislative initiative was underway and in record time the House and Senate passed the new language for the Pledge. In a floor speech just days after Docherty’s prophetic message, Michigan congressman Charles Oakman said, “The tough moral fiber which has characterized this Nation’s growth to a position of world preeminence must not deteriorate. It was fed on the belief that our destiny was bound to the will of God. It cannot survive unless this spiritual fuel is maintained.”
In answer to a rhetorical question about violating the so-called “separation principle,” or the separation of church and state, Oakman said, “A distinction exists between the church as an institution and a belief in the sovereignty of God.”
The modified Pledge was signed into law four months later on Flag Day, June 14, 1954.
Of course, as you probably know, the notorious atheist activist Michael Newdow has recently challenged these words in court. As a result, in 2002, the powerful Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco struck down the clause “Under God” as unconstitutional. The US Supreme Court then extended a rare privilege to Newdow in 2004. Although the emergency room physician had only just completed a law degree and passed his bar exam, the justices lifted the normal three-year waiting period and permitted Newdow to argue his own case in front of them. It didn’t help; the case was dismissed and sent back to the lower courts to review again. Newdow just reargued it at the Ninth Circuit. No opinion has been rendered yet.
Regardless what the Ninth Circuit or any other court decides, the story of “Under God” in our Pledge reminds us all this struggle for the soul of our American civilization is not over. It will require constant vigilance. It also reminds us of the power of the pulpit. When God’s Word is faithfully proclaimed from the “sacred desk” it reshapes the moral landscape. “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord,” reads Proverbs 21:1. “Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever he wishes.”
In the days ahead you’ll hear a lot more from me about George Docherty, his sermon and the Pledge to the Flag of “one nation under God.” While Dr. Docherty is still with us, I am working feverishly with members of Congress to petition the President to confer the Medal of Freedom on him. Dr. Docherty deserves such a great honor for his incomparable contribution to our country, but his receiving it will give the nation another opportunity to consider the profound meaning and consequence of these words. I’ll soon ask you for your help in getting this accomplished in short order. Dr. Docherty is a gift from God to this country, and I’d like to see us say thanks before he departs for Heaven!
Stand by for more . . .
Your grateful missionary to elected and appointed officials,
Rev. Rob Schenck
Faith and Action
109 2nd St., NE
Washington, DC 20002